Humane Letters 9 Name Reading Comprehension: Book 1, The Iliad



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Humane Letters 9 Name ______________________

Reading Comprehension: Book 1, The Iliad

Book 1 Rage of Achilles.



The principal episodes are:

  • The proem (what does it announce about the nature of the poem?)

  • The priest's appeal and the plague (what do we learn about Agamemnon?)

  • The assembly and the quarrel (how might "gift-exchange" be thought to underlie the central interactions between Ag. & Achilles?)

  • Achilles and Thetis (what principal theme is introduced into the poem?)

  • The assembly of the gods (how does this mirror, and how does it contrast, the mortal assemblies we saw at the opening of the book?)

The principal characters are:

  • Agamemnon, "king of kings", son of Atreus ("Atrides")

  • Menelaus, brother of Agamemnon, husband of Helen, son of Atreus ("Atrides")

  • (Agamemnon & Menelaus together are s.t. called the "sons of Atreus" = "Atridae")

  • Achilles, king of the Myrmidons, son of Peleus and Thetis

  • Patroclus, dear friend (second self?) to Achilles

  • Nestor, the old wise man

  • Calchas, the seer

  • Chryses, the priest (confusingly, from Chryse island)

  • Chryseis, the daughter of Chryses & prize of Agamemnon

  • Briseis, prize of Achilles

  • Thetis, mother of Achilles, a goddess (one of the 50 Nereids, daughters of the Old Man of the Sea = Nereus)

  • Zeus, king of the gods

  • Hera, Zeus' wife and sister

  • Hephaestus, the "smithy" god, who is lame

  • Athena, a virgin goddess dressed in armor and associated with cultivated wisdom

  • Apollo, the "archer" god, who sends the plague, but also is the god of music and art (as we see at the end of the book)

The principal places are:

  • Troy

  • Aulis

  • Mount Olympus

(Note that numbers refer to lines in each book. Words in bold designate important characters and concepts)

  1. The proem consists of the first 8 lines. It is a masterpiece of poetic compression; every word counts. What does evoking the Muse entail? What is the epic about? What thematic concerns are introduced?



  1. What, exactly, is the will of Zeus?



  1. 8 The descriptive phrases "lord of men" and "brilliant" are verbal formulas called epithets that regularly accompany the names Agamemnon and Achilles. Epithets always denote some essential quality. Look for other such epithets. What are some?



  1. 9 What kind of god is Apollo? To what does he respond?



  1. 61 Achilles calls an assembly. What is his function in society? Is he usurping Ag.'s authority? What motivates him here?



  1. 100 Note how Ag. And Ach. bait each other. Note how they talk about women. With which combatant do you side? Does either have justice on his side? Why is Briseis important?



  1. 290 What is Nestor like? What does he urge and why? Do they listen?



  1. 420 Achilles calls for his mother, the goddess Thetis. Their relationship is extremely important, so study their action carefully. Note what he requests, and keep it in mind later, because his request is not granted in precisely the way he intends. Remember also that in the first line Achilles is called the son of Peleus. Through the course of the poem, consider whether his mother or father is more important to him.



  1. 490 Thetis first mentions his fate. Consider why this fate is appropriate to Achilles in particular.



  1. 590 Homer moves the action to the gods. Do the interactions among the gods parallel those among the humans? In what ways? What do the gods do here that the humans do not? You will need to consider the role of the gods throughout the epic.

Humane Letters 9 Name ____________________

Reading Comprehension: Book 2, The Iliad

Book 2 The Great Gathering of Armies

The principal episodes are:


  • Zeus sends a (false) dream to Agamemnon, and Agamemnon decides to test his army (what does the reaction of the army tell us? what does this episode tell us about Agamemnon?)

  • The Thersites episode (in what sense does this reflect the argument between Agamemnon and Achilles in Book one?)

  • The (fact of a) "catalogue of ships" (what is the net effect of this long catalogue? why does the poet insert it here?)

The principal new characters are:

  • Odysseus (leader of the Greeks, from Ithaca, esp. known for his cleverness at speaking)

  • Thersites (deformed subversive from the lower ranks)

  • the Muse (goddess of inspiration and memory, called on by the poet before undertaking a particularly difficult poetic feat)

  • Hector (principal fighter on the Trojan side, son of Priam)



  1. Note the general crisis of indecision in Ag. and the consequent crisis of authority, giving rise to the rebellion of the lowly Thersites. In what ways is Thersites different from the other Achaeans? Who restores order?



  1. 102 The Achaeans are compared to bees in the Iliad's first simile, a poetic figure comparing two different things. The Iliad is famous for its extended similes. What effect does this and other similes have?



  1. Only skim the catalog of heroes towards the end of Book 2. What function does this catalog serve?


Humane Letters 9 Name _____________________

Reading Comprehension: Book 3, The Iliad

Book 3 Helen Review the Champions

The principal episodes are:


  • Paris and Menelaus agree to fight in single combat (Abortive attempt to end the war #1)

  • Helen points out the warriors to Priam from the walls of Troy

  • Paris and Menelaus fight, and Aphrodite whisks Paris away to the bed of Helen

The principal new characters are:

  • Paris (Trojan, son of Priam, abductor of Helen)

  • Helen (the "face that launched a thousand ships", most beautiful woman in the world and cause of the war, wife of Menelaus, consort of Paris)

  • Priam (old king of Troy)

  • Iris (messenger of Zeus)

  • Aphrodite (winner of the "judgement of Paris", goddess of love, protector of Paris, supporter of the Trojans)

Book 3


  1. One feature of Homer's genius is how he manages to include events before and after the war through allusion and symbolism. Throughout this book and the next one Homer alludes to the background and causes of the war, without going into much detail. Look for specific techniques he uses to do so.



  1. The two sides are massed for a mighty conflict, but the poet turns to a single duel between Menelaus and Paris. Why hasn't this duel occurred before? What function does it have in the story?



  1. 145 Helen appears. What is she like? Why can't King Priam, after 9 years, identify the Greek warriors? Note how Homer develops the Trojan character. Are the Trojans presented sympathetically?



  1. 428 Why does Aphrodite save Paris? What is he like? Study carefully his interaction with Helen, and consider the way she talks about herself.

Humane Letters 9 Name _____________________

Reading Comprehension: Book 4, The Iliad
Book 4 The Truce Erupts in War.

The principal episodes are:



  • At the prompting of Athena, Pandarus breaks the truce by shooting an arrow at Menelaus

  • Agamemnon urges on his men as the Trojans attack

The principal new characters are:

  • Pandarus (Trojan bowman who breaks the truce)

  • The Greater and Lesser Ajax, great Greek warriors (we'll learn more about these figures later, but go ahead and memorize the names)

  • Nestor and Odysseus (revisited, important Greek leaders)

  • Diomedes, son of Tydeus (the great Greek warrior who will be the focus of book 5)

Book 4


  1. Concentrate on the breaking of the truce by Pandarus. Why and how does he break the truce? Beyond the obvious, what is Homer's point here?



  1. 257 Agamemnon begins a minor aristeia. What do think an aristeia is? Every major hero will have one, though Agamemnon’s comes later. Look for a pattern of action after a couple of instances; because the traditional nature of Homeric poetry tends to use such patterns, these moments are called typical scenes.


Humane Letters 9 Name ______________________

Reading Comprehension: Book 5, The Iliad
Book 5 Diomedes Fights the Gods.

The principal episodes are:



  • The "Aristeia" of Diomedes begins; Pandarus wounds Diomedes

  • Athena revives Diomedes and allows him to see the gods

  • Aeneas and Pandarus attack Diomedes; Diomedes kills Pandarus, and wounds Aeneas; Diomedes wounds Aphrodite trying to save her son Aeneas

  • Dione comforts Aphrodite, who complains to Zeus

  • Diomedes attacks Apollo, who saves Aeneas

  • Athena and Diomedes attack and wound Ares, who complains to Zeus

The principal new characters are:

  • Ares, god of war

  • Aeneas, son of Aphrodite and Anchises, great Trojan warrior

  • Sarpedon, son of Zeus himself (we'll see him again), Trojan warrior

  • Dione, mother of Aphrodite (by Zeus)

Book 5


  1. Diomedes has his aristeia, under the protection of Athena. Does her help detract from his glory or magnify it? Why can Diomedes now recognize other gods on the battlefield? Why does Athena want Aphrodite injured? (And how can a god be injured, anyway?)



  1. 680 Hector intervenes. Given that Hector is the most important Trojan fighter, why does Homer keep him in the background for so long. Keep track of his epithets. Note the simile comparing Hector to a roaring river and remember it the next time a river is involved in a simile about Hector.



  1. 800 Note how the gods are becoming more directly involved in the fighting. What does this signify?



  1. 990 Diomedes wounds Ares. Compare the reactions of humans and gods when they are injured?

Humane Letters 9 Name _____________________

Reading Comprehension: Book 6, The Iliad

Book 6 Hector Returns to Troy

The principal episodes are:


  • Diomedes (Greek) and Glaucus (Trojan) meet: the story of Bellerophon: D. and Gl. decide to exchange armor

  • Hector returns to the city and visits his mother, wife, and child; as well as Paris and Helen

The principal new characters are:

  • Glaucus, Trojan hero who exchanges his golden armor for Diomedes' bronze armor

  • Bellerophon, ancestor of Glaucus

  • Hecuba, wife of Trojan king Priam, mother of Hector (and many others)

  • Andromache, wife of Hector

  • Astyanax, infant son of Hector

Book 6


  1. 140 Study the exchange of Glaucus and Diomedes, who agree not to kill each other. Why? What is the ethic here? Note Homer's comment on their armor trade.



  1. 290 This is Hector's book. Here we see who, what and why he is. How does the narrator seem to feel about Hector? Compare and contrast his heroism with Achilles. Consider his relations with women. Note his self-consciousness about the inevitable fate of Troy and his family (520). What, exactly, motivates him to keep fighting? Do you see anything potentially wrong or self-contradictory with his reasoning? Don't sentimentalize his hopes for his son too much.


Humane Letters 9 Name _____________________

Reading Comprehension: Book 7, The Iliad

Book 7 Ajax Duels with Hector

The principal episodes are:


  • Hector challenges the Greeks to single combat: Ajax is chosen by lot to fight. The duel ends without the death of either hero.

  • Antenor (a Trojan elder) advises the Trojans to return Helen; Paris objects, but makes the offer to give back other plunder with additional payment. The Greeks refuse. (Abortive attempt to end the war #2.)

The principal new characters are:

  • Ajax, Greek warrior, the "bulwark of the Achaeans": here we get our first full view of this warrior, a huge man with little cleverness and much strength (Ajax will commit suicide after the war when Odysseus, rather than he, is awarded the armor of the dead Achilles-- this is the subject of Sophocles' play, the Ajax)

  • Poseidon, god of the sea, and builder of the walls of Troy


Book 7


  1. Hector and Paris return to battle. Two further abortive attempts to end the war. Hector and Ajax duel, the latter having been chosen by lot; note how chance matches nature, since Ajax is the best fighter after Achilles. Apollo and Athena watch "like vultures" (65). Note Hector’s bargain concerning the return of corpses, for this will be important later. Do you think Hector is growing or shrinking in stature?



  1. Afterwards, the Trojans consider returning Helen (400), and a truce is called to burn the bodies of the fallen warriors. Divine discussion of the battlements built on the pyre (500) raises the theme of human arrogance and weakness.

Humane Letters 9 Name ______________________

Reading Comprehension: Book 8, The Iliad

Book 8 The Tide of Battle Turns

The principal episodes are:


  • This is one of several books which gives us the feel of the back and forth of the battle. There are no episodes of remarkable importance, but note that by the end of the book the Greeks are very much getting the best of the battle. Read quickly, but notice things like

    • Zeus' magnificent use of scales

    • the gods' agreement on the fated death of Patroclus

    • the beautiful, yet ominous simile that ends the book.

The principal new characters are:

  • None

Book 8


  1. Zeus bans further divine intervention. Note the magnificent image of Zeus' scales (80); this will return later. Zeus signals the Greeks' collapse, but still pities (280): is he confused? Given that the proem told us that these events are the will of Zeus, what does Zeus really want?



  1. 400 Athena and Hera rebel, but Zeus recalls them, with the sudden first account of the fated death of Patroclus. Is this what Achilles and Thetis had in mind? Why "must? Patroclus die?



  1. 580 Hector, flush with glory, decides to camp on the plain; is he being reckless here? Note the beautiful, yet somehow ominous, simile at the end of the book. What effect does this simile have?



Humane Letters 9 Name _____________________

Reading Comprehension: Book 9, The Iliad

Book 9 Embassy to Achilles.

The principal episodes are:


  • The "embassy" to Achilles: an important episode. Ajax, Odysseus, and Phoenix visit Achilles in his hut to try to persuade him to rejoin the fighting. Odysseus details the gifts proffered by Agamemnon. Phoenix tells the story of Meleager. Ajax bluntly rebukes the stubborn hero.

  • The story of Meleager and the boar

The principal new characters are:

  • Phoenix, tutor and comrade of Achilles

  • Meleager, prince of Calydon

Book 9


  1. An important book. Agamemnon admits his error and sends an embassy to Achilles, consisting of Odysseus, Phoenix and Ajax. Consider why these three in particular go. Compare Agamemnon's instructions with what actually happens, focusing in particular on the conduct of Odysseus. This book is so dramatic, tense and emotional that one could stage it as a play. True to Zeus' promise, the Greeks are begging Achilles to return. Agamemnon offers boundless riches, yet Achilles feels it is not enough to repair his honor: why? Do you think he is right?



  1. Odysseus repeats Agamemnon's speech verbatim except for the last lines: why? Study closely to what values the warriors appeal in trying to persuade him. Note the graciousness with which Achilles receives them, but the rage he displays in his response. His speech ranges brilliantly, at times almost incoherent, often returning to the same point obsessively. How, if at all, has he changed from Book 2? He says he will go home, but is this a real option? Note that he is easily convinced to hold back until the Trojans reach his ships. In general, do you feel that Achilles is being unjust in this book?



  1. Phoenix attempts to persuade Achilles by telling him a story about Meleager. Do you see any parallels between the myths of Meleager and Achilles? Do you see any potential significance in the name Cleopatra? Ajax's speech given what happens to him after the war, is filled with irony. Note that Ajax seems to have the most impact on Achilles.



Humane Letters 9 Name ______________________

Reading Comprehension: Book 10, The Iliad

Book 10 Marauding Through the Night.

The principal episodes are:


  • Diomedes and Odysseus are chosen by the Achaeans to go on a spying expedition at night; meanwhile, Dolon is chosen for the same activity bythe Trojans.

  • Diomedes and Odysseus capture Dolon, who tells of the disposition of the Trojan forces; they then kill Dolon.

The principal new characters are:

  • Dolon, Trojan spy

Book 10


To boost morale, Diomedes and Odysseus go out on a night raid against the Trojan camps. Consider how this episode could foreshadow the later fall of Troy. Note also how Hector's arrogance has placed his men in danger. Explain.

Humane Letters 9 Name ______________________

Reading Comprehension: Book 11, The Iliad
Book 11 Agamemnon’s Day of Glory

The principal episodes are:

  • The aristeia of Agamemnon. After giving the Trojans a bad time, Agamemnon is wounded and must withdraw.

  • But now the battle turns badly against the Greeks, and their leaders are wounded one by one: Diomedes, then Odysseus, then Machaon; even Ajax, though unwounded, is beaten back to the ships

  • Patroclus, at Achilles' command, goes to Nestor's hut to see who has been wounded: Nestor suggests to Patroclus that he ask Achilles if he, Patroclus, can lead the Myrmidons into battle and wear Achilles' armor

The principal new characters are:

  • Machaon, Greek & son of the famous healer Asclepius

Book 11

  • Agamemnon's aristeia. Compare it to Diomedes in Book 5, and try to discern a pattern. Note also that when he is finally wounded his pain is compared to a woman in labor !! (310) Diomedes wounds Hector and Paris wounds Diomedes. Odysseus fights alone, but is saved by Ajax and Menelaus. Paris wounds Machaon. This will become very important, so watch for its consequences, beginning at 705. Nestor gives Patroclus the idea of wearing Achilles' armor. One by one, the Achaeans are falling.


Humane Letters 9 Name ______________________

Reading Comprehension: Book 12, The Iliad

Book 12 The Trojans Storm the Rampart


The principal episodes are:

  • The battle rages hot; more back and forth; at the end Hector breaks through the wall and the Trojans rush in to attack the ships

  • Polydamas gives a sinister interpretation to an omen, but Hector ignores him

  • At 359ff Sarpedon and Glaucus give a detailed statement of the heroic code; note the simile that precedes

The principal new characters are:

  • None

Book 12
Look for ways in which this book and the next set the stage for Hector's fall, as his success makes him progressively more reckless. Look for warnings Polydamas gives Hector, and note where and why he stops listening.

1-40 Again, Homer extends the poem's range beyond its plot, thus imparting a greater sense of inevitability to its action.

320 Pay close attention to this simile and its effect.

340 Sarpedon and Glaucus (compare this scene with Glaucus and Diomedes in Book 6) give the most complete statement of the heroic code. Why do heroes risk their lives? Note how the awareness of mortality changes everything. Compare their ethos with Achilles' speech in Book 9

530 Hector crashes through the gates. Note how Homer shows us Hector is simultaneously totally victorious and totally out of control.


Humane Letters 9 Name ______________________

Reading Comprehension: Book 13, The Iliad
Book 13 Battling for the Ships
The principal episodes are:

  • Poseidon intervenes for the Achaeans, who are desperately trying to save their ships (the last chance for safety) from the rampaging Trojans

The principal new characters are:

  • None

Book 13



Poseidon intervenes for the Achaeans

160 Compare this simile to the earlier one comparing Hector to a river. What has changed?

780 Hector is ignorant that the Achaeans have fought back. What happens?

840 Polydamas warns Hector for the third time, stopping, temporarily his recklessness.



Humane Letters 9 Name ______________________

Reading Comprehension: Book 14, The Iliad
Book 14 Hera Outflanks Zeus
The principal episodes are:

  • The "Beguiling of Zeus": to distract Zeus, Hera (with an assist from Aphrodite) seduces Zeus, who falls asleep

  • With Zeus asleep, the Greek (with an assist from Poseidon) gain the upper hand in the battle, and Ajax knocks out Hector, who is carried from the battle

The principal new characters are:

  • None

Book 14
Amid the carnage, Homer breaks the tension with this amusing interlude.

First, Agamemnon proposes leaving, and in response Odysseus and Diomedes revile him.

375 Note Zeus' rather odd idea of flattery to his wife.

490 Zeus asleep, Ajax knocks out Hector. What does this tell you about Hector?

Note the pattern: Greeks win in Bks 11 & 14, Trojans win in Bks 12 & 15, leaving Bk 13 as an interlude.

After Book 13, concentrate on Bks 16-18, 22, and 24, although all of the Books after 16 are important.

Humane Letters 9 Name ______________________

Reading Comprehension: Book 15, The Iliad
Book 15 The Achean Armies at Bay
The principal episodes are:


  • Zeus wakes up, and is not happy. With Apollo's help, Hector recovers, and the Trojans rush upon the Greek ships. The Greek situation is now desperate.

The principal new characters are:

  • None

Book 15
Zeus wakes up and is not happy, and thus cleans up the mess. Apollo helps Hector recover. Following the forecast of Patroclus' death in Book 8, Zeus now augments his prophecy to include, for the first time, Hector. Why does this happen here? Ajax thwarts efforts to burn the ships.




Humane Letters 9 Name ______________________

Reading Comprehension: Book 16, The Iliad
Book 16 Patroclus Fights and Dies
The principal episodes are:

  • Patroclus returns to Achilles and tries to persuade him to relent. Achilles will not, but does agree to what Nestor had suggested to Patroclus towards the end of Book 11: that Patroclus lead out his troops, the Myrmidons, and wear Achilles' famous armor

  • Patroclus kills Sarpedon, Zeus' son, but not before a famous deliberation between Zeus and Hera as to whether Zeus can intervene and save his son from his "fate" (very important!)

  • Hector and Patroclus fight: Hector slays Patroclus

The principal new characters are:

Myrmidons: the troops of Achilles
Book 16

Patroclus convinces Achilles to let him enter battle wearing his armor. Why doesn't he go himself? If he is so insistent on not participating, why send Patroclus? This the fourth time someone has begged him (Book 9), and, as usual, the fourth time is the charm. Think about the potential symbolism of the armor. What part of Achilles' armor does Patroclus leave behind? Note the description of his armor compared to those of Diomedes, Agamemnon and Hector before their aristeiae. Pay careful attention to Achilles' instructions to Patroclus, and the similes describing the Myrmidon warriors.

Patroclus kills Sarpedon, Zeus' son, whom Zeus considers saving. Why doesn't he? What happens to Sarpedon? This is the first important death in the epic, beginning the sequence that leads to Hector's death. Look for changes in the narrative tone and level of elaboration.

What happens to Patroclus after killing Sarpedon? Look at the descriptions of his mind and emotions.

As Patroclus approaches the wall, the tone of the poem begins to take on a surreal tone it will keep until the end of the epic. Note the heavy stress on the future, on inevitability.

Is Patroclus diminished in the end or exalted? Is Hector's conquest of him glorious? Note that, despite the intention of tricking the Trojans that vAchilles has returned, they never think that. Why do you think this is so? What effect would it have had on the story if Hector had bent over the dead Patroclus and said, "It's only Patroclus."

Hector says he will give Patroclus' corpse to the vultures; consider the ramifications. And does Hector has a realistic idea of his role in the death of Patroclus?

Humane Letters 9 Name ________________________

Reading Comprehension: The Iliad, Book 17
Book 17 Menelaus’ Finest Hour

The principal episodes are:


  • The fight over Patroclus' body (why so much emphasis? is there significance in Menelaus being the first defender of the body? ["like a mother cow lowing over her calf"])

  • Hector strips the armor from Patroclus: note well that this is Achilles' armor (what's the consequence? when Achilles later fights Hector, what does he see?)

  • Achilles' immortal horses mourn Patroclus, and Zeus meditates on human mortality (what is the effect of this rather strange sequence?)

The principal new characters are:

  • Immortal (talking) horses of Achilles

Book 17

The battle over the hero's corpse. Do you see any significance in Menelaus being the first defender of Patroclus' corpse body, “braced like a mother cow lowing over a calf” (5)? Menelaus himself talks about this.

Is Zeus' attitude to Hector changing? Why or why not?

Hector dons the armor of Achilles; symbolism (what is the symbolism?)? (220)

305 Zeus draws a mist over the scene.

500 Zeus laments Achilles' immortal horses, who mourn Patroclus, and Zeus launches into a meditation on human mortality. Ajax, once again, is the main defender. The Achaeans worry about Achilles' reaction and send Nestor's son Antilochus. Why? What is that reaction?



Humane Letters Name ____________________

Reading Comprehension: Iliad, Book 18
Book 18 Shield of Achilles.

The principal episodes are:

  • Achilles' laments the death of Patroclus to his mother, Thetis

  • Achilles shows himself to the Trojans; Polydamas advises retreat to the city and is ignored (see book 12)

  • Thetis asks Hephaestus to make armor for Achilles

  • A description of the shield of Achilles: city at peace, city at war; scenes of ploughing and reaping, scenes of vintage and herding; scene of the dance.

The principal new characters are:

  • Note now that Polydamas, whom we saw in Book 12, is a minor but pivotal figure

Book 18


Achilles has sensed his friend's death, recalling an earlier prophecy about living to see the death of the best of the Myrmidons. Zeus' plan has now been fulfilled and the story changes from Achilles' anger and withdrawal to his revenge. The different scenes in this book are alternated to show the events that will finally bring Achilles and Hector together.

How does Homer evoke not just Patroclus' death, but Achilles' as well? Note that his mother begins to lament him while he is still alive (as the Trojan women did for Hector).

The need for armor serves the function of preventing Achilles from merely charging out, saving Patroclus and killing Hector immediately. How would the story be different to you if this had happened?

Does Achilles accept responsibility for his friend's death?

Achilles does not even need to appear for the battle to turn. How?

Is Hector's attitude after killing Patroclus like Patroclus' after killing Sarpedon?

Note the anger of the gods.

Thetis' visit to Hephaestus is a welcome interlude. She gives the full story of her marriage (finally!) and says Apollo, not Hector, killed Patroclus; is this the way you see it? She asks for new armor for her son. The divine armor gives a further poignancy to her son's mortality. The new shield of Achilles allows Homer a delineation of normal human life, of which the heroic is an exceptional part.

Think about the shield and what is represented. What image of life does Homer provide? What does the shield evoke? Can you draw the shield based on Homer's description?


Humane Letters 9 Name ________________________

Reading Comprehension: The Iliad, Book 19

Book 19 The Champion Arms for Battle.

The principal episodes are:


  • In a complex interchange, Agamemnon and Achilles "make up" (at least sort of): study the details of how this works itself out, esp. the role of food

  • Achilles laments Patroclus and will not eat: Athena gives Achilles divine food

  • Xanthos the horse foretells Achilles' death (notice the effect here: we now enter the realm of the fantastic, and books 20 & 21 will continue this theme!)

The principal new characters are:

  • We now understand why the horses of Achilles were described as "talking horses"

  • Food, though not a "character", is very important here

Book 19
Thetis brings new armor to Achilles, which terrifies everyone else. Achilles announces the end of his anger, and Agamemnon attributes his error to Ate, "folly;" is he being serious, or making excuses? (Dodds has a fine chapter on this psychology in his book, The Greeks and the Irrational) Does Achilles really care about the gifts?

What does his refusal to eat signify? Note that the gods put ambrosia in him; where else has ambrosia appeared?

Briseis has essentially been exchanged for Patroclus; does Achilles seem to realize this? Note her lamentation for Patroclus. Achilles has re-entered battle, but has he re-entered the society of warriors?

Achilles, entering battle, talks to his horses, and the narrative re-enters the realm of the fantastic.



Humane Letters Name ____________________

Reading Comprehension: Iliad, Book 20

Book 20 Battle of the Gods.

The principal episodes are:

  • Zeus unleashes the gods to battle for Trojans or Greeks as they will: and the gods do battle! (Why does Zeus do this?)

  • Achilles and Aeneas in single combat; and Aeneas (with Poseidon's help) takes a wondrous leap

  • Achilles wreaks havoc among the Trojans, and almost kills Hector (who however is hidden by Apollo)

The principal new characters are:

  • None, but note prominence of Aeneas (see book 5)

  • Also note the ABSENCE through this sequence of the other Achaean leaders: what effect does this have?

Book 20


Having fulfilled his promise to Thetis, Zeus unleashes all the gods. Why?

Note how the other Achaean heroes disappear for several books. Achilles begins his wholesale slaughter, and a premature meeting with Hector is aborted by Apollo.

How is Achilles' aristeia similar to and different from others?

Humane Letters 9 Name ___________________________

Reading Comprehension: The Iliad, Book 21

Book 21 Achilles fights the River Scamander.

The principal episodes are:


  • Achilles slays so many Trojans in the river Scamander that the River (as a god) rises up and fights him

  • Fighting among the gods: Athena & Ares, Athena & Aphrodite, etc. (What is the effect here on our view of the divine world? How does this fold into human concerns on the battlescape?)

  • The bulk of the Trojan force escape within the walls of Troy, as Apollo deceives Achilles

The principal new characters are:

  • Scamander, chief river of the plain before Troy, here conceived as the river god

Achilles fills the river Xanthus with corpses, and the river god rebels and attacks Achilles, who is only saved by Hephaestus. This cosmological conflict is quite different from other divine petty quarrels. Note that Achilles is bathed in both fire and water.

Athena and Ares fight; does Homer's description of this fight sound familiar? What is the function of this scene?

Agenor attempts to hold off Achilles, but Apollo saves Agenor and assumes his form, leading Achilles astray.  


Humane Letters Name ____________________

Reading Comprehension: Iliad, Book 22

Book 22 Death of Hector.



The principal episodes are:

  • The death of Hector: note (1) Zeus' role, (2) the entreaty by Hector and Achilles' reply, (3) the role of Athena, (4) Hector's last request

  • Achilles befouls Hector's body

The principal new characters are:

None, but note the dramatic reappearance of Andromache

Book 22


Pay close attention to the descriptions of Achilles and Hector in this book. Note that Homer generally presents Achilles here through the eyes of others.

How do Hecuba and Priam attempt to persuade Hector to withdraw? Why does he refuse? What does Hector realize about himself?

Study carefully the conduct of the gods from line 220 on. Again, do the gods lessen Achilles victory or do they merely confirm it?

How do you feel about Hector, Achilles, and the other Achaeans during Hector's death and shortly after?

Achilles' vengeance is now complete, but the book has shown us little of his thought and much of Hector's. The plot is now complete, and thus Achilles' continuing rage is stressed even more. Why is Achilles still angry?

Humane Letters Name ____________________

Reading Comprehension: Iliad, Book 23

Book 23 Funeral Games for Patroclus.



The principal episodes are:

  • Funeral feast and games for Patroclus. Note especially: how the dispute over the chariot race is resolved-- what are the social interactions; how Agamemnon is treated

The principal new characters are:

  • Antilochus, the Greek who cheats in the chariot race

Book 23


How does Homer suggest Achilles' separation from humanity here, his symbolic death?

The funeral games for Patroclus attempt to re-integrate Achilles into society. Is this successful?

They also foreshadow events after the war. Has Achilles grown? Has he learned?

Humane Letters 9 Name ______________________

Reading Comprehension: The Iliad, Book 24
Book 24 Achilles and Priam.

The principal episodes are:


  • Achilles daily drags the body of Hector around Troy

  • Priam goes to the hut of Achilles to ransom the body of Hector (what god(s) help and how? what exactly is the sequence of events? why is it so terrible for Priam to kiss the hand of Achilles? what makes Achilles relent?)

  • Note within the ransoming the story of Niobe (why is this inserted here? note the link, once again, with food-- what is the importance of food?)

  • In succession, Andromache, Hecuba, and Helen lament the fallen hero Hector

The principal new characters are:

  • Niobe, a mother who boast that her 12 children (6 male, 6 female) are better than the mere two children of Leto (= Apollo and Diana), a hubris that merits a spectacular divine revenge

Book 24 Priam ransoms the Body of Hector.

The principal episodes are:

  • Achilles daily drags the body of Hector around Troy

  • Priam goes to the hut of Achilles to ransom the body of Hector (what god(s) help and how? what exactly is the sequence of events? why is it so terrible for Priam to kiss the hand of Achilles? what makes Achilles relent?)

  • Note within the ransoming the story of Niobe (why is this inserted here? note the link, once again, with food-- what is the importance of food?)

  • In succession, Andromache, Hecuba, and Helen lament the fallen hero Hector

The principal new characters are:

  • Niobe, a mother who boast that her 12 children (6 male, 6 female) are better than the mere two children of Leto (= Apollo and Diana), a hubris that merits a spectacular divine revenge

Book 24


This consists of three type scenes: the divine visitation of Thetis to Achilles; the suppliant scene of Priam to Achilles; and the burial of Hector. Compare gods and humans in terms of emotions and morality in this book.

Some scholars have seen Priam's trip to Achilles' tent as a symbolic journey to Hades; how so?



Why does Achilles surrender Hector? How do Priam and Achilles console one another and bring each other back to humanity? Do you think that Achilles has grown as an individual and learned wisdom about himself and the world, or is he the same Achilles as before?

Think about this book on your own. It is one of the most profound and moving episodes in all of literature. In what ways is it cathartic (a medicine that purges the body of things it doesn’t need)?


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